Eating less meat appears to be good for the planet as well as for human health. An investigative report from the University of Oxford in the U.K. in published April 2016 found that the current food system worldwide is responsible for generating about one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and as a result is a “major driver of climate change.”
The researchers modeled four dietary scenarios and their effects on both human health and climate change by the year 2050. The first anticipates the effects of “business as usual” with no major change in eating habits. A second looks at the effects of diets that limit red meat, sugar and total calories. The third evaluates the benefits of vegetarian diets, and the fourth projects the impact of vegan diets.
The researchers determined that if people limited their daily intake of red meat, sugar and calories, 5.1 million worldwide deaths per year could be avoided by 2050. If they switched to vegetarian diets, that figure would be 7.3 million fewer deaths, while adopting vegan diets would push it up to 8.1 million. The study found that about half of the avoided deaths would be due to reducing red meat consumption, while the rest would stem from increasing intake of fruit and vegetables and reducing calories – strategies that would lower rates of overweight and obesity.
By 2050 the effects of these changes on food-related greenhouse gas emissions would be equally dramatic: following dietary guidelines by reducing red meat consumption and increasing intake of fruit and vegetables would lower emissions by 29 percent. Vegetarian diets would lead to a 63 percent reduction and vegan diets to a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The study projected that the most avoided deaths due to the dietary changes would occur in developing countries, particularly in East Asia and South Asia, but the per-person benefits would be twice as large in developed countries due to larger per-person cuts in red meat consumption and total calories.
This report dramatically illustrates how healthy dietary changes – particularly cutting back on meat consumption – can save lives and impact climate change. But lead researcher Marco Springmann noted that even if the dietary guidelines were adopted worldwide, the impact “would not be enough to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions to the same extent that total greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall to keep global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).”
That 2 degree number is important: scientists have identified it as the point at which we’re likely to experience longer droughts and more intense heat waves, both of which could result in major disruptions to the world’s food supply. A 2 degree C. increase could mean rises in sea levels of several feet, enough to flood many coastal areas in the U.S. and set off major migrations of people away from affected areas elsewhere in the world.
How you choose to eat can help determine the future of our planet.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Marco Springmann et al, “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 21, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1523119113